The Design of Car Audio Alerts

I am fortunate to own two very nice cars, a Porsche Cayenne and an Audi S6. They are both great pieces of engineering, they drive well, they are comfortable, I get a great amount of utility out of them. I have been just as happy with less expensive cars, but these are great cars.

The Audi has a beast of a powertrain, handles very well, and the interior controls and layout are very good. Out of the many OEM and aftermarket GPS systems I have used, it is in the top quartile of usability, tho a touch screen would be nice. The iPod integration is reasonably well done though could make better use of the screen in the dash. The seats are awesome. Overall a super nice car.

The Cayenne also drives well, the interior finish levels are very nice. The interior control layout is a bit of a disaster, clearly the A-Team engineers work on powertrain and suspension, and leave controls to summer interns or MBAs (I’ve been both so I’m allowed some latitude…). But still a very nice car.

Both the cars have interior audio alerts to make the driver aware of important conditions and faults. What would you imagine the shrillest, loudest alarm is for? I could imagine a lot of things that demand my immediate attention. An imminent collision. Backing into an object. Brake system failure. Maybe even the traction control system engaging, indicating unsafe driving surfaces or unsafe driving. Maybe even driving at night without headlights on. All these conditions are unsafe and could result in injury to myself or others. I could make a case for all of them to result in the loudest, shrillest interior alarm.

The Audi has excellent interior controls so of course the loudest, shrillest interior alarm is used to indicate that a rear light has failed. Not necessarily the rear brakelight, but any rear light — turn signal, operating light, brakelight. And the alarm sounds every time you start the car and cannot be silenced. And I am not sure exactly what the “shrill” scale is, but this sound is 3x shriller than any other alarm in the car.

The Cayenne is not to be outdone though! The shrillest alarm by far is used to let you know, after you turn off the car, that you have left your turn signal on. Not that the light is actually lit or visible, but the control arm on the steering wheel stalk is in the “on” position and damn it, that is just wrong. Of course, given the general goofiness of the Cayenne interior (the worst GPS ever, cup holders the size of thimbles, two control screens with functions randomly split between), this is to be expected.

OK, no one should feel sorry for me, these are two great cars, but Audi and Porsche — if you are going to spend this much care designing these cars, can’t you spend a few minutes getting this right?

My thoughts turned to the importance of design this morning on the news of Steve Jobs’ leave of absence, here is hoping he is well soon, the world needs more people who care obsessively about the details of design.

One thought to “The Design of Car Audio Alerts”

  1. John, great post. That is the case with so many beautifully designed machines, though. I have a feeling you’d like Don Norman’s new book “Living with Complexity” – the very first chapter is about this subject.

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